By Darren Schuettler and Ek Madra
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – The chief Khmer Rouge torturer went on trial for crimes against humanity on Tuesday, the first case involving a senior Pol Pot cadre three decades after the end of a regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch and ex-commandant of the notorious S-21 prison, sat impassively in a blue shirt as a judge read the opening statements in court.
Hundreds of victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities lined up to get into court, but the proceedings are mostly procedural, with the main trial starting in March and a verdict due by September.
Duch, now a born-again Christian, expressed remorse on the eve of his trial by the "Killing Fields" court set up to prosecute "those most responsible" for the 1975-79 reign of terror, one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
"He said to the victims, 'I ask your forgiveness, I ask your forgiveness'," French lawyer Francois Roux told Reuters Television after visiting his client at a detention center near the specially built court outside the Cambodian capital.
The trial is a landmark for the strife-torn country where nearly every family lost someone under the Khmer Rouge.
"This is the day we have waited for 30 years. But I don't know if it will end my suffering," said Vann Nath, an artist who managed to get a seat near Duch.
He was one of only a handful of people to survive S-21, saved because he was chosen to paint portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
The trial ends a decade of delays at the Cambodian-U.N. tribunal due to wrangling over jurisdiction and cash, but critics say the court's integrity is threatened by allegations of corruption and political interference over who to prosecute.
"Any hint of political manipulation at the tribunal will undermine its credibility with the Cambodian people," said Sara Colm, Cambodian-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Four other Khmer Rouge cadres have been charged but a bid to go after other suspects was brushed aside last month by the tribunal's Cambodian co-prosecutor, who said it would not help national reconciliation.
Cabinet spokesman Siphan Phay denied any meddling and said the government wanted to complete the trials of the five people already facing charges before going after other suspects.
"First things first," he told reporters. "We have never said we opposed anything, but let's finish these first."
Duch also faces charges of war crimes, torture and homicide while chief of S-21, where at least 14,000 "enemies of the revolution" were jailed and later killed.
The graying 66-year-old is one of five aging senior cadres charged for their roles in Pol Pot's "Year Zero" revolution to achieve an agrarian utopia.
He is expected to be a key witness in the trials of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, who was the regime's ex-president, and Ieng Sary, its foreign minister, and his wife.
These four have denied knowledge of any atrocities by the Khmer Rouge during its rule, which began by driving everyone out of the cities with whatever they could carry.
If convicted, the five could face life in prison.
Some 300 local and foreign journalists are accredited for the first day of the trial, which is being televised in Cambodia.
Duch has confessed in interviews with Western reporters that he committed multiple atrocities as head of the infamous Tuol Sleng, or S-21, interrogation center.
Most victims were tortured and forced to confess to a variety of crimes -- mainly being CIA spies -- before being bludgeoned to death in a field on the outskirts of the city.
Women and children were also killed. Only a few survived.
"Duch's hands are full of blood. It's time for Duch to pay for his actions," said 39-year-old Norng Chan Phal, a child survivor whose mother was killed at S-21 months before Vietnamese soldiers toppled Pol Pot's regime in 1979.
Pol Pot's death in 1998 was followed by a formal Khmer Rouge surrender which helped to usher in a decade of peace and stability, threatened now by the global economic downturn.
(Additional reporting by Noppawan Bunluesilp; Editing by Alan Raybould)